ENID is proudly named after Dame Enid Lyons (1897-1981), and dedicated to her legacy and memory. Enid Lyons is one of the formidable women of Australian history, as she was the first woman elected as a Member of Parliament to the Australian House of Representatives, and the first woman to serve in the federal cabinet.

Acutely aware of the great responsibility that she carried, Enid dedicated her life in the public eye to serving the Australian people while furthering the position of women in society.

Whilst Enid is a remarkable woman in her own right, her political career developed simultaneously alongside her husband’s, Joseph Lyons (Prime Minister from 1932-1939). After marrying Joseph in 1915 at age seventeen, Enid and Joseph had twelve children (eleven survived). While busy raising her family, Enid was also involved in Tasmanian Labor politics, becoming a talented public speaker through campaigning for her husband and for her own first election, the 1925 Tasmanian state election (which she lost by only 60 votes).

Following the split of the Labor Party, Enid and Joseph joined the United Australia Party (UAP) in 1931, and moved their family into The Lodge when Joseph became Prime Minister in 1932. Compared to the tradition of Prime Minister’s wives being largely uninvolved in public life, Enid transformed the role and continued her political involvement through furthering her reputed excellence in oration and writing newspaper articles. Enid held such popularity that when speaking around the country carrying the UAP’s Great Depression message, Robert Menzies complained that she was stealing the “limelight”.

Joseph and Enid Lyons with their eleven children at the Lodge.

Following Joseph’s unexpected death in 1939, Enid momentarily left public life until she successfully ran in the 1943 federal election for the UAP. Enid, as well as Dorothy Tangney who was elected to the Senate, became the first two women elected to Australia’s federal parliament.

While Enid was quickly told by WWI Prime Minister Billy Hughes, “Remember, let there be no talk of equality of the sexes!”, Enid wasted no time in her maiden speech to the House of Representatives reflecting on the enormity of the occasion and the responsibility that weighed on her,

“As I acquit myself in the work that I have undertaken for the next three years, so shall I either prejudice or enhance the pros­pects of those women who may wish to follow me in public service in the years to come.”

Further in her speech, Enid saw herself as deeply concerned with national character and a commitment to the values of ‘fair go’ and justice. Enid resisted being confined to representing only women’s issues in parliament, arguing that all issues from finance to international relations had deep impacts on family and the home. For this reason, she was committed to bringing her experience of family life, but also engaging in any national issues;

“Any woman entering the public arena must be prepared to work as men work; she must justify herself not as a woman but as a citizen; she must attack the same problems, and be prepared to shoulder the same burdens.”

Senior Members of the Menzies Government left to right: Sir Robert Menzies, Dame Enid Lyons, Sir Eric Harrison, Harold Holt, Sir Thomas White.

Once in the House, Enid continued to break gender barriers as after joining Menzies’ new Liberal Party in 1945, she became the first woman appointed to the federal Cabinet, serving as the Vice President of the Executive Council from 1949 to 1951. Whilst a remarkable achievement, Enid later voiced disappointment that her position did not carry a portfolio, stating “they only wanted me to pour the tea”, noting the progress that was yet to be made. Resigning due to failed health after three consecutive terms in parliament, Enid’s departure was met with praise from the senior men of Government who spoke highly of her oration skills, talent, and dedication.

Enid continued to promote family and women’s issues in her public life, serving as an ABC board member, a newspaper columnist from 1951-1954, publishing three memoirs, and in 1980 received the honour of Dame of the Order of Australia (AD). Dame Enid died in 1981.

Enid’s many achievements, most notably being Australia’s first female MP, are significant in our history, and her legacy should be recognised. Enid put her hand up to lead her community in a time where women weren’t acknowledged as leaders. She didn’t accept that her gender should exclude her from public life, in fact saw her gender as something unique that she could bring to politics in order to cultivate diversity, support, and networking in community life. Today, we should remember the message that Enid wrote in her memoirs, and apply it to any area of community that we want to raise our hand and contribute to;

“Until women fully appreciated the privileges and duties of citizenship, and were normally accepted by the community as candidates for public office, the community would remain the poorer.”

Article by Holly McDonald